Last year, Tuesdays took the place of Saturdays for Akeel Lynch and his teammates on the Penn State scout team.
It was a redshirt year for Lynch, who learned to relish the midweek opportunities to try and show up his seniormost teammates.
“Tuesday we’d be full pads and we were like, ‘Hey, we’re getting after it because this is our gameday,’” Lynch said. “So, me, Eugene Lewis, Brent Wilkerson, we would go out there, ‘Okay, who’s going to win scout team player of the week?’ We’d try to make big plays. We made the best out of it.”
Lynch’s scout team days — coach Bill O’Brien calls it the “Dirty Squad” — may be well behind him. The redshirt freshman from Toronto, Ontario made good on the opportunities he got in Saturday’s Blue-White Game.
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Seeing ample time after Zach Zwinak went down with a hand injury early and Bill Belton sat out with a bum toe, Lynch finished with a team-high 13 carries for 83 yards and scored on the opening drive during Blue’s 67-47 victory at Beaver Stadium. He mixed a patient running style that made him a deadly opponent in high school with quick feet and furious finishing ability in his first extended action in a Nittany Lion jersey.
“I thought he ran hard,” O’Brien said. “Just from being down there on field level and watching him run the football. I’m always stressing with Akeel, getting his pads down and running with his pads out over his toes and I think he did a good job of that today.”
O’Brien went public with his tutelage of Lynch in the third quarter. The second-year coach who wore a microphone that relayed his voice throughout Beaver Stadium got on Lynch when the freshman scuttled his way through a small hole for a short gain.
Afterward, Lynch laughed when asked about the play.
“It was funny,” Lynch said. “It was an inside zone and he said, ‘Akeel, get your pads down low!’ I thought that was pretty funny.”
He wasn’t afforded that gameday criticism last season. Instead, Lynch had to come to terms with coaches wanting to redshirt him last season. He found out shortly after his team’s loss to Virginia that he would sit for the remainder of the year. He quickly made peace with it and vowed to himself he wouldn’t let the year go to waste.
“That’s one thing I tried to grasp really quickly — the bigger picture,” Lynch said. “So I took every advantage I had on scout team, in the weight room, the Friday lifts, the mornings before the games, I just took advantage of because you’re never going to get this year back. It’s a year to just get better on the field and in the classroom as well.”
A business major, Lynch added bulk to his 6-foot frame. He was up to 210 from 204 by the end of last fall and still checked in at under five percent body fat. Since then, Lynch has added four more pounds and now weighs in at 214.
Speed was an issue for him as well. Lynch didn’t want to sacrifice speed for size. So he worked with strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald to improve his running technique.
His most recent 40-yard-dash time? 4.48.
“I was really happy with that,” Lynch said. “And also I gained weight and also keeping my speed up so that was one thing I was definitely excited to see.”
His teammates have seen Lynch morph into a player ready for extended action, too. They believe Lynch can be a versatile back in a stable with Zwinak and Belton, who bring mixes of physicality and athleticism to Penn State’s running back corps.
“He’s a great player and I have no doubt that he’s going to have a successful career here,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “He’s a guy that we’re going to look to in the future.”
As for the near future, Lynch is looking forward to Saturdays taking on added significance for him. It started with the intrasquad scrimmage.
When Lynch ran out of the tunnel with his teammates, he said he felt the same way he did before last season’s season opener against Ohio. One thing was different, however.
“It was great because I came out of the tunnel and I had those jitters,” Lynch said. “I had those same jitters (for the Ohio game) but I knew I was actually going to get in. It was real great.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_